Some of us read sitting up, others read lying down. A characteristic pose at our house is of me lolling on the couch or in bed holding up my book like the artist’s wife. One of the great things about twentieth-century classics is that they are usually slim enough to read in the supine position. Certainly this is true of Sybille Bedford’s A Favourite of the Gods, an out-of-print classic I recently discovered.
This brilliant novel, published in 1963, is astonishing from the opening sentence. “One autumn in the late nineteen-twenties for no particular reason at all, as it would seem, we began to live in France.” I love the whimsy of that sentence. It describes a life of money, where such decisions can be causally made. And because each sentence is equally glittering and perfect, I could not put this book down. The structure is perfect: events repeat and form a pattern in this inter-generational novel, though in each generation events have a different meaning.
The prologue is so marvelous that I read it twice. A mother and daughter, Constanza and Flavia, are on a train, wondering why it has stopped. They pick up their books to read, and suddenly Constanza’s brother Georgio appears in their carriage to ask a favor for one of his “harebrained schemes.” He leaves in a huff, and when the train crosses the border to France, Constanza discovers her ruby ring is missing. The ring, a gift from her father in Rome, is her connection to the past and also shapes the events that follow. After her mother separated from her father, the ring was all she had to remember him by.
Because of the uproar over the ring, Constanza and Flavia miss their connecting train. They find themselves spending the night at a hotel in an unknown village in France. They are stranded there on Saturday night, and cannot send a telegram till Monday.
Constanza isn’t very upset. They were on their way to meet Lewis, her fiance. She planned to marry him “to complete a design,” she tells Flavia. She doesn’t believe in marriage for love. Lewis intensely wants to marry her. She has said she will, but doesn’t care greatly.
“We did half our best,” Constanza said, grinning at me. We still did not know the name of the place and when we asked the manager, he said: “But you are the lady with the daughter who wrote about the villa.” Not to her knowledge, said Constanza. The villa was ready for her to look at after luncheon, said the manager.
Naturally, Constanza and Flavia rent the villa. “As a matter of fact we stayed for eleven years.” And so Flavia begins the story of her mother and grandmother. And we switch from first person to third person.
Bedford blends the elements of two of my favorite writers, Henry James and Nancy Mitford. (I know, I know, they have nothing in common: James is a Europhile and Mitford is a humorist. ) In fact, Mr. James is a character in Bedford’s novel. His friend Anna is an American heiress, who marries an Italian prince. They are happy and in love, and divide their time between Rome and a country house. Anna thinks nothing of traveling for six months to India with friends, so much does she trust the prince. But many years later when she learns the prince has had a long-term affair with one of their friends, she is maddened and goes to England with Constanza, who is very Italian and does not understand that father’s affair is the cause. She thinks perhaps he has embezzled money.
During their years in England, Constanza lives what I think of as a Nancy Mitford life. It’s not that Bedford is hilarious–she is not–but there is a bit of Linda Radlett, the charming heroine of The Pursuit of Love, in Constanza. She loves England, has many eccentric friends, marries a young affected man who shares her mother’s love of art (the marriage is her mother’s idea), has no patience with fools, has an affair with a charming Greek poet, does war work, and is upset when the Greek poet enlists. When Simon drops his artistic airs to practice law and go into politics, he falls in love with a more conventional woman. Constanza nobly volunteers to go to a hotel with a man so adultery can be “proved” and Simon’s political reputation won’t be hurt. She will miss Simon, but did not love him like a husband anyway. And he has no interest in their daughter Flavia, so she will not lose Flavia.
Bedford, born in Germany, was raised by her father, a German baron, after her parents separated. When he died, she moved to Italy to be with her mother. Then she was sent to England to be educated (which never happened), and England eventually became her home. She wrote her books in English. Her novel A Legacy has been reissued by NYRB. Her novel Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education was a finalist for the Booker Prize .
But the really thrilling thing about discovering a splendid “new” writer? There are so many new books to read. I can’t wait.
Great review, Kat! I’ve read one of Bedford’s travel books which was lovely, but I’ve yet to pick her fiction off my shelves (I have some of her titles in Virago copies). She certainly sounds good!
I had this one on my shelves for years and what a surprise! To think this was waiting for me… I do look forward to her others.
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Great review. I loved this and A Compass Error- so atmospheric of the period. I later read A Legacy by Bedford which is not an easy book but quite brilliant too.
I really look forward to reading more of Bedford. I do have some of her books and am glad I collected them, but why I’m reading them only now I couldn’t say!
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“James is a Europhile and Mitford is a humorist. ”
It sounds like you can’t be both, the way you put it!
Oops, not my best sentence! 🙂
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